PETER IS THE AUTHOR OF THE BOOK, "TO BOLDLY GO: A PRACTICAL CAREER GUIDE FOR SCIENTISTS"

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"Hey, want to go to a job fair?"

I looked up from my computer. My labmate, Dave, was standing in the doorway to our office with an armful of stuff: highlighter pens, Post-it notes, foam balls, pencils, and a multicolored plastic Slinky. I asked him which office supply closet he'd raided, but he corrected me.

"I got all this from the job fair. It's going on today--you should check it out. You never know, you might actually get a job too!"

I was in my final year of graduate school and, like most graduate students, was in a total state of denial about my job hunt. I had my fingers crossed that one of the handful of postdoc applications I had submitted would pan out. But I also found myself wondering more and more if a career outside of research would be a better match for me. Why not check out the job fair? At least I might end up with something useful, like a ballpoint pen or a clean T-shirt.

So I went. And, like Dave, I came back with an armful of stuff--but not much else. I certainly did not get a job, and I didn't learn very much either, because I hadn't developed a strategy for making the most of the opportunity.

In our Tooling Up columns, Dave Jensen and I have both stressed the importance of informational interviewing, networking, and researching your job opportunities. Job fairs can be a valuable part of that information gathering process. However, just like any of the other job search-related activities, attending a job fair can be either a great investment or a spectacular waste of time depending on your goals, your preparation, and your strategy.

What Are Job Fairs Anyway?

Job fairs are organized gatherings in which employers set up booths and meet with prospective employees--usually university undergraduates and graduate students. Most universities organize job fairs throughout the year, usually through the campus Career Planning and Placement Center. Occasionally, specific schools or departments--engineering or medical schools, for example--may organize a job fair focused on a particular industry.

Some job fairs are run not by the university but by industry associations or professional societies. Fairs of this kind will typically focus on a particular industry or sector, such as biotechnology or information technology. They typically take place in major metropolitan areas in which the industry is well represented, and they are targeted to technical professionals. Some scientific societies, such as the American Geophysical Union, are now organizing job fairs that coincide with their scientific meetings.

Individual companies also sponsor recruitment events, such as information sharing and employment opportunity sessions. These are often the best way to get specific information and to meet people in the company.

Now that you know what a job fair is, you need to know who you can expect to show up (in addition to other job seekers ...). Employers who attend job fairs at universities are typically looking for smart people for entry-level positions. The companies represented are usually medium to large in size and have some facilities in the nearby area. Often, the company booth will be manned by relatively new hires, some of which may be alumni of the institution. The main job of these folks is to answer questions, present a positive image of the company, and take resumes.

It is just as important to understand which employers will typically NOT show up at a job fair. Companies with few openings, either because they are small or because they are not growing, are unlikely to be there. And companies with no local presence are also unlikely to show up--partially because of the expense, and partially because they know most job seekers are looking for local employment.

How Can a Job Fair Help Me?

As one component in a dedicated information gathering process, attending a job fair is invaluable. This is because a job fair represents a concentration of employers who are interested in hiring bright young people just like you. At a job fair you can glean valuable information about an industry or a company in the same way that you would in an informational interview. Finally, if you are hoping to remain in the area, a job fair can be a helpful means of identifying companies with local hiring needs.

But you shouldn't just show up hoping to snag a few cool gadgets; to get the most out of your job fair experience, you have to be well prepared. Here are a few hints ...

Strategies for Success at Job Fairs

  • Step 1. Figure out who will be there. It is critical to understand the scope and target audience for any job fair you chose to attend. Often it is possible to obtain in advance a list of companies that will be represented. Look through the list and make a short list of those organizations that most interest you. It may well be worth your time to attend the job fair even if there are only two or three companies on your short list.

  • Step 2. Think about what you want to learn. If you have already begun some research into various career fields and employers, you probably have a number of specific questions to ask the people behind the booth. Questions such as, 'Does your company hire Ph.D.s?' or 'Does your company have a summer internship program?' are perfect examples. If you find yourself without any questions to ask, you can always ask generic questions. 'What parts of the company are growing the fastest?' or 'How many people like me did you hire last year?' are good examples.

  • Step 3. Talk to people and get names. If the job fair is not oriented specifically to technical professionals, it is still possible to obtain valuable information and contacts. Ask the people at the booths who in the organization recruits technical professionals. Contact those people directly and tell them who referred you.

  • Step 4. Don't hand out your resume. This piece of advice may seem counterintuitive. After all, isn't a job fair the place where you can reach a large number of employers at once? But just as mailing out hundreds of copies of your resume to employers is a nearly valueless exercise, passing out hundreds of copies of your resume at a job fair can be similarly unproductive. Your resume is your only bullet, and you should fire it only after you have taken careful aim at the target. That means researching the organization and the openings available. If you prepare a resume for a job fair it will be, by necessity, generic. A better strategy is to get the business cards of the people you meet and follow up with a resume that is better targeted to the organization and the openings within it.

  • Step 5. Follow up. The typical company rep who mans a booth at a job fair will meet hundreds of people in a few hours. It is practically impossible for them to remember each name. One good way to make sure that your brief conversation is remembered is to follow up with an e-mail after the event.

What if I Can't Find a Suitable Job Fair?

Many young scientists in smaller institutions or in rural areas may not have easy access to suitable job fairs. If you find yourself in this position, consider organizing a job fair of your own. Graduate students and postdocs around the U.S. have begun doing just that. Your institution or local career center may be able to help you contact the right employers and may be able to provide a space for you. The contacts you meet in the process of organizing a job fair may end up being extremely valuable. Plus, you will have demonstrated the sort of leadership and initiative that many employers are looking for.

Alternatively, if your institution has a job fair focused mainly on undergraduates, contact the organizers on campus and help them expand the range of employers to better suit the graduate population. The undergrads will gain from having a larger job fair, and the graduate students will gain from having a larger number of suitable employers represented.

Final Thoughts

It is hard to know just how valuable a job fair might be without actually attending it. But by going in prepared and with an open mind, you will likely learn something valuable. You might meet an employer that sounds really terrific; you might be introduced to new options you had not considered before. And, who knows, you might just end up with a job!

Peter Fiske is a Ph.D. scientist and co-founder of RAPT Industries, a technology company in Fremont, California. He is the author of Put Your Science to Work and co-author, with Dr. Geoff Davis, of a blog (at phds.org) on science policy, economics, and educational initiatives that affect science employment. Fiske lives with his wife and two daughters in Oakland, California, and is a frequent lecturer on the subject of career development for scientists.